It Gets Heavier Before We Grow Stronger

Oh, the weight of missing the son I love!

I thought I understood just how heavy it was the moment the deputy’s words sank deep inside and crushed my heart.

But I didn’t know the half of it.

You really can’t know how large a person’s absence is until you’ve explored the edges of the world without him or her.

When folks started coming up our long and winding drive, even though I knew full well he would not be among them, my eyes strained to see inside every car. When his friends gathered in our front yard, I couldn’t help looking through the picture window trying to make out his face among the crowd. When we walked into his now-empty apartment I thought surely he was in his bedroom, around the corner, just out out of sight.

But he was nowhere to be found. And the hole in my heart where he should be but wasn’t got bigger.

Those were just the early days.

In the weeks, months and years to follow I found everywhere I set my foot that followed a path we’d walked together, I missed him. When the next movie in a series was released, he wasn’t there to watch it with me. Family gatherings, holidays, birthdays, graduations all went on without him and my heart counted his absence.

From sunrise to sunset my heart marks all the Dominic-sized spaces in a day.

At night, dark stillness invites me to recite them.

But after more than five years, most people no longer see any tale-tell sign of this mama’s heart longing desperately for one more minute, one more hug, one more quick exchange of “I love you!”

I have grown stronger and better able to carry this load of missing.

Daily exercise will do that.

And it IS a daily exercise-lifting the missing up on my shoulders or carrying it in a basket on my head like women hauling water from a well far away has taught me to bear it well.

Getty Images

I still miss him.

I will always miss him.

Greater strength means I can shift the missing to make room for living. I can carry that weight and still find room to carry joy.

Image result for joy and grief

Scripture Journal Challenge: Safe In My Daddy’s Arms

When I was a little girl my family made a yearly pilgrimage to the white sand and clear water beaches in Florida.

We were allowed to wade out on our own as high as our waist while the adults talked and sunbathed on shore. If we wanted to go deeper, even for those of us who were good swimmers, we had to wait for the grown ups to join us.

I have a vivid memory of one sunny day when the waves were rolling in and my six-foot-tall dad was standing neck deep in the Gulf. I was a little closer to shore and decided to join him.

My young mind didn’t do the math between my short self and his taller one and stepped off an underwater ledge into water way over my head. I panicked when I realized there was no way for me to save myself.

In a flash, Papa’s strong arms scooped me up and held me close.

As quickly as fear set in, it vanished because I knew he wouldn’t let me go until I could safely set my own feet down in shallower water.

My daddy wasn’t about to let anything happen to me.

I think about that summer moment nearly every time I read today’s verses.

But thou, Israel, art my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham my friend.

Thou whom I have taken from the ends of the earth, and called thee from the chief men thereof, and said unto thee, Thou art my servant; I have chosen thee, and not cast thee away.

10 Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.

Isaiah 41: 8-10 KJV

God assures Israel (the nation) that He chose them. He cherishes them. He has called them and He will never forget nor forsake them.

It’s a beautiful thing to know that just like Israel, those of us who have been grafted in by the blood of Christ are also heirs together of these promises. (Ephesians 3:6; Romans 11:17)

If you have received the gift of eternal life through Jesus, you can be absolutely assured that God is your Father . He chose you in Christ before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4). He will always take care of you.

Fear is a reasonable response to a situation outside our control.

It wasn’t silly for me to be afraid when my head went underwater and I despaired of saving myself.

When God tells me in His Word to “fear not!” it isn’t a rebuke. It’s encouragement.

God is my Father, He loves me so He says, “Don’t be afraid, don’t be dismayed”.

Why? Because He is with me.

As soon as my dad’s arms reached around me, fear fled. I was safe.

And if my earthly father’s strength and love was enough to allay my fears, how much more should my fears flee in the face of the strength, love and power of my Heavenly Father?

There are so many times I am afraid in this life.

So many times when things are out of control and beyond my comprehension. So many ways life goes wrong and I feel like they will never be made right.

But when I stop and point my heart in the direction of these promises, I can hold onto hope in spite of my fear.

Because my daddy has his arms around me.

Scripture Journal Challenge: When My Heart Needs a Reminder

This time last year I was on the front end of a very lonely, very frightening three and a half weeks.

Each morning began with a sixty minute drive in Los Angeles rush hour traffic toward the downtown courthouse. My husband and I parked and then walked through metal detectors and past guards down a long, long hall to the courtroom.

Every day was one more eight hour shift listening to lawyers, witnesses and a judge as the events of several years were laid out first by one side and then the other. Questions aimed to elicit unflattering responses hit my husband hard.

The opposing counsel even printed out a couple of my blog posts trying to frame both my husband and his family as intolerant fundamentalist evangelicals who certainly didn’t understand how things were done in the progressive West.

Our fate was in the hands of total strangers and the whole time I couldn’t utter a single word.

I was not allowed to nod my head, smile or frown or even cry when I watched my husband recount our son’s death and the toll it took on him as he returned to the workplace and tried to do routine tasks while being challenged repeatedly by a surly , vindictive and manipulative employee.

Trust me, no television courtroom drama can prepare a heart for the kind of stress, uncertainty, mental anguish and overwhelming fear that a real encounter with the justice system evokes.

Sitting alone (my husband was sitting with his attorneys) I could only spend time writing out scripture, taking notes and trying to guess how all this was impacting the twelve jurors sitting mere feet away. Only nine were required by California law to agree in order to reach a verdict which just added to the uncertainty.

I felt oh, so weary, scared and forgotten.

One of the scripture passages I wrote over and over was today’s verses.

27 Why, then, do you, Jacob, inheritors of God’s promise,

    you, Israel, chosen of God—

Why do you say, “My troubled path is hidden from the Eternal;

    God has lost all interest in My cause”?

28 Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard?

    The Eternal, the Everlasting God,

The Creator of the whole world, never gets tired or weary.

    His wisdom is beyond understanding.

29 God strengthens the weary

    and gives vitality to those worn down by age and care.

30 Young people will get tired;

    strapping young men will stumble and fall.

31 But those who trust in the Eternal One will regain their strength.

    They will soar on wings as eagles.

They will run—never winded, never weary.

    They will walk—never tired, never faint.

Isaiah 40: 27-31 VOICE

The nation of Israel was feeling lonely and all alone.

Had God forgotten? Had He abandoned them? Didn’t He care they were at their wit’s end and the limit of endurance?

So Jehovah sends Israel an encouraging Word through Isaiah.

He begins with questions: “Why are you questioning Jehovah’s interest in your cause? Do you think after all we’ve been through He’s forgotten you now? Can anything be hidden from His sight?”

As I sat day after day after day, I had to remind my heart that no matter how it FELT, God was very near. We were not abandoned. Whatever went on in that room with no windows was not hidden from our Shepherd King.

The very next set of questions Isaiah poses is one of my all time favorite verses: “Hey Israel! Do you really not know that God is eternal, everlasting, all-knowing and all-powerful? Haven’t you heard He made the earth and everything in it? Do you imagine He ever gets tired, worn out, too stretched to intervene in the affairs of men? “

This trial wasn’t the first time in my life I needed to be reminded that nothing is hidden from the Lord’s sight. It wasn’t the first time I needed reassurance that God is never too tired or too distracted or somehow limited by my understanding of who He is to reach down and give me a boost.

In the five years since Dominic ran ahead to Heaven I’ve had days, weeks and even months when, in my despair and grief, I forgot the truth.

The whole passage comes to a dramatic conclusion that leaves Israel (and me!) with no room for doubt.

Hey-God breathed into Adam and made a living man from dust. Sure, you may be tired and worn out from circumstances or age, but He can breathe life and vigor back into you too. Young folks seem nearly invincible but even they have limits. You just wait (expectantly, in faith, certain that He will show up and keep His promises) on Him. The kind of energy Jehovah will give you won’t run out. You’ll be like an eagle soaring effortlessly on wind currents higher and higher and higher.”

I’m here to tell you that God keeps His promises. His Word is sure.

I look back on those three weeks and stand amazed that I didn’t fall over from exhaustion and stress about five or six days in because except for surviving my son’s death, it was the hardest thing I ever did.

It was absolutely, positively God’s strength and not my own.

QUESTIONS:

  • I know most of my readers are bereaved parents and probably share my testimony of days, weeks, months of utter exhaustion under the load of grief that child loss dumps on a heart. Can you identify a specific moment when you felt God’s strength poured into your spirit? Can you think of an event, holiday or date you just knew you couldn’t face but somehow managed to survive?
  • How can meditating on these verses help your heart hold onto hope?
  • What new insight does including verses 27-28 to this familiar passage give you?
  • Consider looking these verses up in at least three different translations/paraphrases and compare them. Does that help you understand them better? Why or why not?

PRAYER:

Father God, I want to always remember that You are so much more than I can ever imagine or comprehend. Too often I try to circumscribe You by my limited understanding of how you work in the world. But You are too big for any box I try to stuff You into.

When I forget, remind me. When I doubt, strengthen my faith. When I feel alone, make Your Presence undeniably real to me. When I am weary, breathe new life into my spirit.

Thank You for patiently, graciously, mercifully dealing with me. Thank You for your everlasting, faithful love. You are a good, good Father.

Amen

*If you want more details about what happened last year, you can find it here: https://thelifeididntchoose.com/2018/08/24/heres-the-post-ive-wanted-to-write-but-couldnt/

Scripture Journal Challenge: Sufficient Grace

Today, before I sat down to write this post, I was out running errands and made a decision due to traffic to go through a parking lot I’ve avoided because of strong memories associated with Dominic.

I was suddenly overwhelmed by grief even after five years on this journey.

The tightness in my chest, tears in my eyes, empty sickness in the pit of my stomach washed over me anew.

Time absolutely does not heal a thing in child loss. It only enables me to develop skills for sublimating the horror enough to walk around among the spared.

But one thing IS better now than way back then: I’m quicker to lean into the strength and grace available to me through Christ Jesus. I’m not as resistant to the idea that my weakness is no impediment to God’s work in and through me.

I’ve stopped asking for relief and now ask for grace to bear up under the pain.

Today’s verses are taken from Paul’s pleading with God to take away what many believe to be a physical ailment-perhaps pain or weakness in his eyes-and God’s refusal to grant miraculous healing.

Three times I begged the Lord for it to leave me, but his reply has been, “My grace is enough for you: for where there is weakness, my power is shown the more completely.” Therefore, I have cheerfully made up my mind to be proud of my weaknesses, because they mean a deeper experience of the power of Christ. I can even enjoy weaknesses, suffering, privations, persecutions and difficulties for Christ’s sake. For my very weakness makes me strong in him. 

2 Corinthians 12:9-10

I can imagine Paul’s conversations with the Lord.

“You know I’m really on fire for You, Lord. Don’t you think I’d be in a better position to minister if You would take this pain away? It’s distracting and, well, painful! If You will heal me, I can focus on the work You’ve sent me to do. “

~ Paul

I know it’s dangerous to put words in God’s mouth but I imagine (based on Paul’s own account) that God answered something like this: “Paul, you don’t understand that part of the ministry I have for you is a demonstration that My strength is what sustains you. I don’t want there to be any doubt about where the power comes from. I’m not going to heal you but I will give you enough grace to bear up under this pain.”

I don’t think Paul really thought that was great idea-at least not at first. But as he continued to walk with the Lord and experience that sufficient grace, he saw God was absolutely right (no kidding!).

I can attest to this in my own life.

Before Dominic ran ahead to Heaven I was afflicted with a number of health problems that forced me to admit I was not capable of meeting every obligation to and certainly not every expectation of those around me.

I didn’t like it one single bit.

As a self-proclaimed overachiever it hurt my pride to ask for help. But God’s grace eventually worked it’s way into my heart and I learned that physical weakness was truly an opportunity to proclaim God’s provision and sufficiency.

When Dom left us, I was struck down in a whole new way.

But the grace I had learned to rely on for the strength needed to endure physical pain proved more than sufficient for even this awful heartache.

It is still enough.

God’s strength IS perfected in my weakness.

Not that my weakness makes God perfect. Instead it is my weakness that makes God’s strength undeniably and unmistakably obvious.

When I choose to reveal my brokenness, unveil my weakness and testify to God’s sustaining and enabling grace, I proclaim His sovereignty, His sufficiency and His love.

QUESTIONS:

  • When have you had to admit weakness?
  • How has God’s grace met you there?
  • Do you sometimes try to hide your brokenness? Why or why not?
  • Why do you think God is glorified when we allow others to see our weakness?
  • Can you list specific instances when you felt too weak to continue and God’s grace enabled you to journey on?

PRAYER:

Lord, my pride makes me loathe to admit my weaknesses and to reveal my brokenness. I would rather people think I’m strong and unbreakable. But that’s just not true.

Help me embrace my own limitations and turn to You for your limitless grace and mercy. Help me quickly acknowledge that it is Your Spirit that breathes life into my heart and soul and strengthens me to carry on.

Strip me of false pride and bravado that might conceal how very much I rely on You. Make my life an open declaration of Your sufficient grace.

Amen.

You think, dear heart, that you are forgotten because of your nothingness and weakness and poverty. This is the very reason you are remembered.

Spurgeon

Grief Coping Strategy: Derailing A Negative Train of Thought

It happens most often when things are very quiet or I’m trying to drift off to sleep.  

My mind will rehearse the moment the doorbell rang, or the phone calls I had to make, or-worse yet-imagining what, exactly, Dominic experienced when he left the road and plowed through bushes until he was thrown from his motorcycle and died.

Once my thoughts begin to follow that track, it’s so hard to derail them.

It used to be absolutely impossible.

But now (at five years into this journey) I have some default visualizations that help me break unfruitful mental cycles.

I might imagine details from my childhood-recreating a room or an experience-or recite Scripture, hymns or poems.  Sometimes I force myself to delineate my next day’s tasks precisely and in order.

I am always very careful what I watch, read or meditate on before bedtime because if I plant a seed of fear or dystopia it flowers in my dreams.

And then there are the days when responsibilities lead me down memory lane-going through photos for my daughter’s wedding, consolidating boxes to make room for my husband’s retirement, hunting a particular item for the holidays or another family celebration-and I have a hard time not sinking into despair because Dom’s just not here.

But at five years those are no longer utterly uncontrollable feelings.

I’ve learned ways of diffusing, distracting and redirecting my thoughts to help me deal with them in the moment: 

  • If possible, I stop the activity that triggered the feelings or thoughts and switch to something else.  Sometimes just turning my back makes all the difference.
  • I focus on a non-triggering detail.  Shifting my eyes often shifts my thoughts.
  • If in a group of people, I force myself to listen to the conversations around me and ignore my own thoughts.
  • If alone, I speak the feeling/thought aloud.  Breaking the silence can break the cycle.

Then, (often) I’ll have a meltdown later, but at a time when I can afford it better.

I’ve said over and over that the absolute weight of this burden has not changed but my ability to carry it has grown through practice and doing the work grief requires.

Sorrow is no longer all I feel and my son’s absence is no longer all I see.

Every time I overcome my fear, I redirect my thoughts, I face my feelings and refuse to let them paralyze me, I’m stronger.

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What A Difference A Week Makes!

Last week at this time I was anxiously awaiting news that my daughter-in-law and just born grandson had made it through the night.

I was following my deployed son’s journey from half-way around the world as he tried hard to make it home.

I was planning and organizing so that the son who lives near, my daughter and I could leave early Monday morning to drive down and see all of them.

And I was praying:  “Grace and mercy and strength and life.  Please, please, please God!  We need them to be alright.”

ryker lillie touching for first time

I’m still praying.

But I’m also encouraged.

My son, the new father, made it home.  His wife, a new mama, is doing well.  Our sweet baby is holding his own and improving every day.  Uncle, aunt and Mama D were able to see, touch and make much over this new little life.

What a difference a week makes!

I wish Uncle Dominic were here too.  He would have loved that tiny baby and completed our circle of love around the incubator.

dominic at olive garden

 

It’s going to be a long and winding journey from this point forward.  I’m not naive.  I know we will have peaks and valleys, good days and more difficult ones.

But our family is united for the fight. 

We are knit together with bonds of love and steel and will do whatever it takes to support one another in this journey.

ryker and family around incubator

And we are oh, so blessed by the many, many people volunteering to come alongside!  People praying, sending cards, notes and encouraging messages.  Offers of meals, gas cards and preemie baby supplies and clothes.

encouragement is oxygen to the soulAll these help hearts hold onto hope.

Thank you!

 

what-will-survive-of-us-is-love

 

If you are interested in following our journey you may do so on Facebook:  PRAYERS FOR RYKER  ❤

 

Hidden Manna

I’ve thought often of what good, if any, can come from child loss.  

I do not think for one minute that God “took” my son to teach me a lesson or to mold me in some way.  

But I do believe with my whole heart that God can USE this circumstance to conform me more closely to the image of Christ Jesus. 

Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.

 God knew what he was doing from the very beginning. He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son. The Son stands first in the line of humanity he restored. We see the original and intended shape of our lives there in him. After God made that decision of what his children should be like, he followed it up by calling people by name. After he called them by name, he set them on a solid basis with himself. And then, after getting them established, he stayed with them to the end, gloriously completing what he had begun.

Romans 8: 26-30 MSG

I also cling firmly to the conviction that there are things I can learn, truths I can understand and depths of love and grace I can fathom that are not available to hearts who have not walked the road of sorrow and trod the path of grief.

There are things I know because I have been forced to travel the Valley of the Shadow of Death that those who are spared will never know.  

I truly believe this is some of the “hidden manna” Jesus promises to those who persevere under trial, who resist the lies and lure of the evil one and who persist in holding onto hope in spite of all evidence that screams, “Let go!”

Let everyone who can hear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches: Everyone who is victorious shall eat of the hidden manna, the secret nourishment from heaven; and I will give to each a white stone, and on the stone will be engraved a new name that no one else knows except the one receiving it.

Revelation 2:17 TLB

My testimony is not flashy.  But it doesn’t have to be.

You won’t find me doing a victory lap around a defeated foe.  

Instead I cling tenaciously to the truth that God’s faithful love endures forever and that death is no longer the last word.

I swallow every bit of strength the Spirit offers me.  

Resurrection, redemption and resurrection are coming. 

And I wait, in hope, and with assurance that my story does not end in ashes.  

The resurrection of Jesus was a hidden event. Jesus didn’t rise from the grave to baffle his opponents, to make a victory statement, or to prove to those who crucified him that he was right after all. Jesus rose as a sign to those who had loved him and followed him that God’s divine love is stronger than death. To the women and men who had committed themselves to him, he revealed that his mission had been fulfilled. To those who shared in his ministry, he gave the sacred task to call all people into the new life with him.

The world didn’t take notice. Only those whom he called by name, with whom he broke bread, and to whom he spoke words of peace were aware of what happened. Still, it was this hidden event that freed humanity from the shackles of death.

~Henri Nouwen